David Pickus, president of SEIU Healthcare District 1199 NE Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org
David Pickus, president of SEIU Healthcare District 1199 NE Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

David Pickus, president of SEIU 1199 New England, appreciates the value of the care provided to the disabled by thousands of Connecticut workers.

But he says they are woefully underpaid and he wants legislators to fix that.

In March, the union held a rally at the State Capitol to announce that some 2,500 workers from nine organizations intended to strike on April 18, seeking increased state funding and higher wages.

These employees work for private agencies that receive state funding, with the majority coming from the state Department of Developmental Services. State funding to these private agencies has been flat for more than a decade, the union says.

On April 4, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wrote a letter to Pickus asking him to postpone the strike until early May “in order to give this process time to produce a positive result, with state budget support.” The next day, the workers voted to postpone and are scheduled to meet on Wednesday to assess what legislative progress has been made. The requested wage increases and benefits are included in a bill pending in the legislature.

In this Sunday’s conversation, The Mirror sat down with Pickus to talk about the situation.

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Have you ever held a strike like this before?

Yes, it was probably around 2001.

What was going on then?

Similar problems, workers weren’t making enough money … So there were strikes over trying to get more resources to take care of people. Prior to that, I think it was 1994.

How long has this strike plan been in the works?

The state has neglected these services, the workers that deliver the services, and the … patients that get these services. This has been going on for a very long time and, at the same time, you have a situation where you have particularly Republicans, but not exclusively, that want to privatize all state services. And part of the reason is there seems to be some sort of an idea that if you privatize everything, you’ll save lots of money.

The reality is the only time you save money is because you’re paying wages that are unlivable — with high turnover, etc. And so it’s disingenuous. It’s dishonest, actually. We represent people in the public sector. We represent people in the private sector, and we believe that there should be a mixed system.

But it used to be that the state wages and the private sector wages were very close. Now it’s just astronomically different, and the state workers, while they make a lot more money than these workers do, they don’t make a ton of money. But these are folks, especially in our lower wage agencies, who are making $11 an hour. And many of them have these high-deductible health plans or no health plans, even through the exchange, they just don’t have stuff that they can afford. And retirement is almost nonexistent as far as an option really.

So what we’ve been doing is trying to negotiate and having their bosses tell us that “there’s no money, there’s no money, there’s no money.”

In all of these services, as opposed to other public-funded services, these are really 100 percent state funded. It’s just a state subcontract.

The state has said that it doesn’t have any money. It’s been saying that for a while. When the state had money they said, “I’m sorry we’re not giving it to you, meaning to these workers.” And so we decided that we have had enough.

What are the consequences of not paying people what they consider an equitable wage?

There’s a variety of consequences. You’ve got a real high turnover rate, so you have people coming, going, coming, going, and you can’t deliver the best kind of care. You also may not have enough staff. Then the other thing is you got HUSKY [the state’s Medicaid program] and other [public assistance] services that have to pay a lot of money because these folks can’t afford medical benefits and can’t afford to live.

This work is hard work.

The union is running an online video advocating for the wage increases. (See video below.) Pictured in the video is union member Pamella Reid Johnson of West Haven.

This is arduous. You’ve got to care to be able to do this work. The thing about people who care and who are doing the work on a daily basis is they will spend their own paycheck to find stuff for the clients … and they will act in extremely personally heroic manners to do what they can that’s best for their client.

What are some of the things that you’ve heard from the union members about taking it to this point?

Nobody wants to do it, but they’re prepared to because it’s sort of like almost enough is enough.

What response have you gotten so far from the governor and from legislators about what they’re willing to do?

The governor asked us to hold off on the strike and we withdrew the notices because of that, and the governor said he was appointing his OPM [Office of Policy and Management] Secretary Ben Barnes to work with both sides to see what they could come up with.

I’m encouraged by the fact that the governor believes that this is important. I believe that the leadership in the legislature thinks it’s important.

That’s all nice. Now do something.

What’s the deadline you’re giving them?

We have a meeting with members on Wednesday, and if we don’t have something that makes some sense to us then we will resend strike notices for Monday morning, May 7.

So you’ll strike May 7?


To prevent this strike, what do you need?

We had a similar situation, although it was different, with the nursing homes. The legislature allocated money so we called off the strike and then we negotiated the money based upon how it was being structured with individual providers.

How do you describe the work these individuals do?

These are people that do the work that nobody else really wants to do. They are taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves.

These are folks that go to work every day and … clean, feed, help people get all sorts of exercise and involvement and function in the community. And they deal with folks who may have profound frustrations, behavioral problems, medical problems, all sorts of different things.

How has the work changed over the years? 

Years ago … you didn’t have the approach that you want to get people to develop into the most they can possibly be in our society.

It was a viewpoint that people had certain limitations as opposed to let’s stretch where we can go. Now there’s a much greater feeling for let’s do everything we can to get individuals to be able to do the most that they can for themselves, in the best environment that they can, and get jobs and live lives and have significant others  … as opposed to institutionalization or just putting somebody away in the attic, which is what they used to talk about.

So that change has been profound.

The things that take place at day programs and other types of job coaching and job employment in many cases are much more advanced than they used to be.

But there’s been real cutbacks on these particular services. Many of the day programs have been hit, many of the residential programs have been hit and the specialized services, whether its speech, recreation, OT, PT, women’s health, respite services.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The Mirror reached out to Malloy’s office for comment about the postponed, but potential strike. On Friday, the governor’s spokesman, Chris McClure, emailed the following statement: 

We are continuing to work with the legislature and the union to reach the best possible agreement for all sides. We certainly hope a strike is avoidable, as we are trying to resolve this as quickly as the process allows.

In his letter to Pickus on April 4, Malloy said, “I share your concern that after a decade without changes in provider rates, the employees who staff group homes, day programs and other services under contract for the state are losing their ability to sustain themselves and their families on stagnant wages.”

The Mirror also reached out to Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, which represents nonprofits in the state: 

We appreciate that the union has delayed strike action and we hope there’s a comprehensive budget resolution that fairly compensates employees where that’s necessary and also helps other providers patch holes in their programs caused by years of budget cuts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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